Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The passing of Joseph O'Connell

I got the sad news today that Joseph T. O'Connell, professor of South Asian Religions at St. Michael's College University of Toronto for more than 30 years, scholar of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a long-time friend of mine, a well-wisher and supporter of the Hare Krishna movement since its arrival in Toronto, died last Friday in New York of a massive brain hemorrhage.

Though I met Joe first in 1971 when a new Hare Krishna devotee, he became an especially good friend when I was doing my post-doc at UofT in 1992-1994. We were neighbors in the West Annex during that time, living just across the park from each other, and our families often broke bread together. He and his wife Kathy helped us make the transition to Toronto in many ways.

Joseph was one of the earlier scholars to work on Chaitanya Vaishnavism at Harvard where he did his PhD in the 1950s on the social aspects of the Chaitanya movement. When Krishna consciousness came to Toronto in 1969, he was probably the only person in town who knew anything about it. He thus was a frequent visitor to the temple in the beginning, also having devotees in his classes at St. Michael's College to make presentations. He did a lot to help legitimize the movement in Toronto.

Among other things, he helped midwife Brian Marvin (Shukavak)'s important work on Bhaktivinoda Thakur which was later published as Hindu Encounter with Modernism.

This was in great part because he had a favorable opinion of the social effects of Vaishnavism in the historical context of Muslim-ruled Bengal. I had the honor of editing his main scholarly contributions after he retired, which he wanted to publish as a book. Unfortunately, because many of these articles were old, he felt they no longer had the "cutting edge" quality needed to make them worthy of academic publication.

I personally felt there was a great deal of value in the volume, and used some of his ideas in my own work. In particular, his analysis of hard, medium and soft institutions in analyzing the spread and continuation of the bhakti movement was very helpful. Among other things, he also wrote on the development of the Vaishnava jati in Bengal, a very interesting topic which has been neglected and still needs to be studied.

Joseph spent his entire career at St. Michael's and helped set up the University of Toronto South Asian studies department. He is also known as one who played a key role in developing Sikh studies in North America for which he will long be remembered and admired. He once stayed with me and my family in Montreal when invited to speak at a conference in the Gurudwara in Dollard-des-Ormeaux in Montreal.

After his retirement, Joseph was a visiting professor at OCHS in Oxford, but he perhaps played a more significant role by teaching as a volunteer at the religious studies department of Dhaka University in Bangla Desh, the only one of its kind in that country, helping to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance where it is greatly needed.

Joseph had many other achievements, but I remember him most of all as a man who bent over backwards to be helpful and offer friendship to students, colleagues and visiting scholars. In particular, I am sure there are many scholars from India and America that he and Kathy welcomed into their own home as guests and will always remember him fondly. Indeed, Joseph made teaching, community consciousness and mentoring the most prominent aspects of his academic career, for which I think he won the undying love of many, many people.

He was affable, warm and generous. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.

6 comments:

Krsnadasa Kaviraja dasa said...

Thank-you Jagadananda Prabhu for this sad news, but wonderful glimpse of the life of this great soul.

Hari said...

A fantastic man. So warm and caring and generous. Prayers for Kathy and his family.
Hari

Satyaraja Das said...

He was a gem, a wonderful human being. Although we had numerous exchanges over many years, I spent quality time with him last August at his home in Toronto, with my family. He was gracious and loving. He exhibited true Vaishnava qualities -- next to the phrase "a scholar and a gentleman," one should find his picture.

Sumer Chauhan said...

He was my teacher, mentor and friend. I first met him when I was a child with Srila Prabhupada.
Then he was my teacher at the University of Toronto.
I spent so much time with him and his wife, christmas parties, friendly visits.
Even after I graduated, we would still be in touch.
The last time I saw him was last year, 2011, at a University gathering he wanted me to come to.
He was the greatest professor of Indian and Hindu studies I had ever met and I don't think there will ever be anyone as amazing as him.
He will always be missed.

Jagat said...

Indeed, Sumer, he had the gift of empathy. So many nice tributes have been coming on a group of scholars I belong to. I admire him more now that these memories are being made public.

Gaura said...

Joseph invited me to speak in his Caitanya Vaisnavism class at St Michael's College at the University of Toronto in the 80's. I told him that I hoped to learn Bengali one day, so that I could enter more into the culture that Lord Caitanya appeared in, and he gave me a big book on how to read and write Bengali. I have yet to learn it ! I thought this was very kind and generous of him. Thank you for honoring him here Jagadananda prabhu.